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Sustainability in research - immediate vs long-term impact

September 7, 2020.

This month, KTH’ new sustainability goals will be discussed amongst the KTH faculty. Goals with relation to research are that “KTH is [to become] a leading technical university in research for sustainable development and a climate-neutral society. Integration of sustainable development and climate research in KTH's research base [will be] increased.” 

With this text, I wanted to start a thinking process about the impact of our research on the environment.

Let us start with the observation that technical developments are the source of nearly all anthropogenic climate change. Technology has enabled humankind to conquer the world - at the cost of a current (over-)exploitation of resources and decreasing biodiversity. Yet, I often hear colleagues argue that KTH’ technology development is a crucial element in solving these (technology-caused) problems. This mantra - praising technology as a solution without acknowledging it as the root of the problem - is too often used as a naive and demagogic narrative.

Let me touch upon two fundamental problems.

First, there is a lack of competence concerning the impact of our research on the environment. I guess that few researchers at KTH can provide a balanced overview of the effects of their specific research field on sustainability in a historical perspective, i.e., can highlight which aspects of their research field have improved and which have worsened the current environment. Without a historical perspective, how can we claim we will “improve” the future? 

Second, the impact of our research on sustainability depends on the way our results are implemented - something mainly beyond our control. Perhaps worse, the world is an inherently chaotic system, making a long-term assessment of the impact of our research infeasible.

Let us glance at two examples to illustrate this complexity: the diesel engine and the Internet. The invention of the diesel engine little over a century ago is arguably the most significant leap in mechanical engineering in modern history. Diesel engines are three to five times more energy-efficient than their predecessor, the steam engine! Yet, their very efficiency caused their wide-spread use and made them a significant source of pollution. 

Today’s most significant technical development, digitisation, promises more efficient processes and increased quality of life. Yet, we are all aware of the potentially negative impact of excessive screen-time on our (mental) health, and today’s Internet consumes more energy than an average European country. (For more perspectives, see the article by Iolanda, Hossein, Madeleine and others: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-14108-y.)

"Anyone who has studied the history of technology knows that technological change is always a Faustian bargain: Technology giveth and technology taketh away, and not always in equal measure. A new technology sometimes creates more than it destroys. Sometimes, it destroys more than it creates." [Neil Postman]

Technology has been, and continues to be, a necessity for societal development. The modernisation and technologisation of society, however, have led to anthropogenic climate change. Can we discontinue this evolution? How? Or is humankind bound by a “second law of thermodynamics” that stipulates that our impact on the environment (energy dissipation) must increase with societal complexity?

What we DO have control over are our daily operations as researchers. KTH causes climate change through four mechanisms with approximately equal weight: 1) academic travel; 2) our real estate (heating/airco); 3) constructing new buildings (building a new house consumes the same energy as operating it for 50 years), and; 4) other sources.

To ensure an immediate reduction of our climate impact, I suggest starting with a focus on what we have direct control over. Along the way, we should also attempt to reduce our long-term environmental impact.

//Wouter van der Wijngaart, Prof. KTH EECS

PS. My acknowledgements to Nina Wormbs and Daniel Pargman for inspiration and critical feedback.